Many, many years ago the weddings of the Irish country peasants were conducted by the priest, who was paid by the voluntary contributions of those guests attending the wedding. The ceremony itself was usually celebrated in the evening and was followed, especially among the wealthier farming classes, by a great feast, to which the priest was always invited. After the supper, when the company are still merry with the food and drink, they have consumed, the hat was passed around for contributions.
Kitty Malone was the prettiest girl in the entire parish, the bridegroom was the luckiest of men on his wedding day. was the bridegroom. You wouldn’t have thought that if you had seen the expression on the man’s face as he stood, looking very ill at ease in a stiff, shiny, brand-new, tight-fitting suit of wedding clothes. Yet, he was the fortunate man to have won Kitty’s heart and was about to claim a beautiful bride, who had fifty pounds to her fortune and three fine cows.
Most of the guests, however, were looking at Kitty. She was sitting beside the priest, very pretty and modest, blushing at the clergyman’s broad jokes. But the female guests were admiring the beautiful ‘white frock’ that she was wearing, many of them envious of its ‘bow-knots’ and trimmings of white satin that adorned the many-skirted garment. “It’s as good as new,” the lady’s maid at the big house assured her when she had bought it. “It was made by one of the finest dressmakers in London, and it has only been worn at a couple of balls. Her ladyship is very particular about her clothes and wouldn’t stand for the slightest sign of a crush or soiling on her gown.”
There is no place where a priest is so good-humoured as when at a wedding. There, in the middle of his jokes and his jollity, he keeps his attention focused on the future dues he would get. All the while, to all the guests, he appears to be absorbed in giving his attention to the pretty bride, whose health he had just drunk to in a steaming tumbler of whisky-punch. But, Father Murphy kept his business eye on the preparations that were being made for sending the plate around the room for his benefit.
The stirring began at the end of the table where the farmers were gathered in a large group, and all of them dressed in their finery. Wearing their large heavy greatcoats of fine cloth, their finest trousers, and shiny shoes that reflected the candlelight as they walked. Their lady wives and daughters all dressed in capacious blue, green or scarlet cloth cloaks with a silk-lined hood, which, like the greatcoats of the men, are an indispensable article of clothing in social functions among their class, even on the bad days. And there, as usual, in the middle of that group was Paddy Ryan, who was a sworn friend and supporter of Father Murphy. Paddy was rather small in build and one of the least well-off men in the parish when it came to the possession of worldly goods. But although he had neither a large holding or dairy cattle Paddy was very popular and was considered by most of the men as being good company. Nevertheless, such was his loyalty to the priest, that he would have gone through fire and water to serve his Reverence. As the priest caught sight of his devoted follower, his mind concentrated on Paddy’s actions to the extent that a very nice compliment he was making to the bride was interrupted.
At first, Paddy Ryan took a hold of the collecting plate and appeared to be about to carry it around the guests. Then, as if suddenly remembering something important that he had forgotten, he stopped and threw the plate down on the table with a clatter and a bang, which cause the bride’s mother to wince, for it was one of the plates from her best china set. Paddy, however, now began to try all the pockets in his clothes. He searched his waistcoat, trousers, and the pockets of his greatcoat, one after another, but did not seem to find what he had been looking for. At last, after much hunting and shaking, and many grimaces of disappointment, Paddy seized the object of his search, and from some unknown depths, a large tattered leather pocket-book was withdrawn with great care. By this time, however, because he made that much fuss during his search, now everyone’s attention was fixed upon him. With great deliberation, he opened the pocket-book and peered inside, after which, having first ensured by a covert glance around that the guests were watching him, he took out a folded bank-note. He took great care unfolding the bank-note and, after spreading out on the table, he ostentatiously flattened it out smoothly to ensure that all who saw it might read the ‘Ten Pounds’ that was inscribed upon it!
Not surprisingly there was a sudden rumble of astonishment among the guests, with certain signs of dismay being seen among the richer portion. The thick, money-filled wallets, that only a few moments before were being brandished by their owners, were now quickly and stealthily pushed back into pockets again. For several moments there was a pause among the crowd that was followed by a great amount of whispering as the farmers began to consult one another. While this continued there were many anxious and meaningful looks directed to these farmers by their wives, along with various nudges, and severe digs into their ribs. In such circumstances as these, there was always great rivalry in the giving of offerings. Mister Hanratty, who drove his family to Mass every Sunday in his own jaunting car, would certainly not want to be seen giving less than Mister Wilson, who was also a charitable sort of man and earned plenty of money from his butter in the city market. Now, there was the threat of being outdone by the likes of Paddy Ryan! To contribute five pounds to the priest’s collection, when the likes of Ryan was seen by all to give ten pounds, could not even be considered! So, the result, after Paddy had put his note on the plate with a complacent flourish and had started to go around everyone with the collection plate, was the largest collection that Father Murphy had ever seen, and he was overjoyed as he began to stuff his pockets with notes. But, as the priest was leaving the Malone home, Paddy came up to him and took hold of the bridle of the priest’s horse. “That was a quare good turn that I have done your Reverence this night, didn’t I? Such a collection of notes and piles of silver and coppers I have never laid eyes on before! Sure, I thought the plate would break in two halves with the weight of it. And now” — he took a quick look around to ensure there was no one listening to them and began to whisper, “you can slip my ten-pound note back to me.’ “Your ten-pound note, Paddy? What do you mean by asking for it back? Is it that you want me to give you back part of my dues?” ‘Ah now! Father Murphy, surely you are not so innocent as to think that note was mine? Sure, where would a poor man like me come upon such an amount of money like that? Ten pounds, Father! Didn’t I borrow it, from yourself Father, for the scam? And what a mighty good and profitable scam it was. Didn’t I tell you that the sight of me putting it on the plate would draw every coin out of all their pockets? By the good Lord, it did!’ This was, of course, a fact that the priest could not deny and, along with some interest, he refunded Paddy’s clever decoy.
The small town in which I have lived most of my long life is not much different from any other small rural town in Ireland. There are some towns that may be larger than others, and some that are smaller, but in each of these towns lives at least one character whose reputation is known both far wide. Sadly, almost every town contains some people who are known for their anti-social activities, which attract the anger of their fellow residents. Their actions within the community gain for them disparaging names, such as ‘Wastrels’, ‘Spongers’ and ‘Jam Trampers’, among their neighbours. While the offenders might be worthy of such names, in many cases, the community is inclined to rush to judge others, based on the antics of one person. Far too often people are too quick to “tar” a troublemaker’s entire family with the same “brush”. They fail to accept that each person is an unique individual in their own right and they fail to measure each on their own individual merits. In my own town, most of the anti-social behavior that we experience can be traced to the age-old human weakness for alcohol, which seems to be an ever-present problem for some within Irish society.
As a proud Irishman I confess that I am not teetotal. I enjoy the occasional drink or two, and I can see no reason why any hard-working man or woman should not be allowed to enjoy one or two glasses of their favourite alcoholic beverage. The choice, after all, is theirs and so long as they can afford to buy the drink, who has the right to stop them. My tolerance, however, does start to wear a bit thin when a man or a woman drinks excessively, spending all that they have without giving a thought to the welfare of their spouse or children at home.
In my hometown the majority of those who take a drink are, thanks be to God, very mature people who enjoy moderation in all things. They are not the type of people, from my experience, who would ever consider leaving their families short of money and food just for the sake of alcohol. But, as is the case in most things, there are exceptions to any rule. There are always those who have no sense of responsibility or feel accountable for any of the actions they take. We have all seen men and women, both young and old, who seem to always spend their government welfare benefits on beer, lager or spirits without much thought being given to the family at home. Even worse are those who work all week and, after getting their wages, they spend it all on alcohol even before they reach home. When they eventually stagger home all they bring with them are empty pockets and a foul mouth for those left hungry and bedraggled. Sadly, in my opinion, the spouses would be much better off as single parents to enjoy life without fearing the mental and physical abuse that an alcohol dependent man or woman can bring to a family.
Now, I am only too aware that such things are not confined to Ireland or the Irish people in general. Yet, I can tell you that in our small town one of the most sober, considerate and compassionate men is the Parish Curate, Fr. Lennon. He stands over six feet tall in his socks, and he has been graced with a physique like a main battle tank. The man’s hands are just massive lumps of flesh and bone, resembling great sledge hammers that are ready to deal out punishment to any potential opponent.
Within our small town and the county Father Lennon had built a big reputation for himself as a tough centre full-back for the County Football Team. Although he wears the garments of a man of God there are very few members of the opposing teams who could get past him with the ball in their hands without first suffering some sort of injury, minor or otherwise. Then, at the lectern, every Sunday morning the same man preaches proudly about sin, violence, fair play, sex and the evils of alcohol.
Every Sunday, since he retired from playing football, there was no activity that Fr. Lennon liked to do more than to take a leisurely walk through the town. His usual route took him past “River View”, which was one area of the town that was one of the most socially challenged areas of the town, because it mostly low-income families that resided there. Consequently, it was an area that Father Lennon frequently visited in his Parish pastoral visits and, in its two hundred feet length, there were six very small, old, two-bedroom cottages without central heating or indoor plumbing. The families that lived in this small street were obliged to draw fresh water from a pump at the foot of the lane. They were also obliged to share the discomfort of a communal toilet area, with a chemical toilet, at the back of the cottages. It was, for the want of a better description, a slum area that was long-past its time for redevelopment. For a long time, Fr. Lennon had been urging the local authorities to demolish the cottages and rehouse the residents in more modern accomodation. His appeals, however, had been falling on deaf ears.
One Sunday morning, as he turned into “River View” he was almost knocked over by a small, scruffy boy who looked to be about eight years old. The boy had been running so fast, and with his head down, that he had not noticed the priest walking on the footpath. Father Lennon managed to stop the boy from crashing into him by grabbing his shoulders and, steadying him. He asked the boy, “Where in the name of God are you going to?”
Breathlessly the boy replied, “Oh Jesus, Father! My Da is murdering my Ma!” Through the grubbiness of the boy’s face, and the long, tatty hair that flowed almost to his shoulders, the priest could see a great fear in the boy’s eyes. “I need to get away from him before he starts into me!” he stammered.
Fr. Lennon immediately recognised the boy as being Sean Mackey, and one of fourteen children that belonged to Mary and “Bisto” Mackey. Sean bore such a resemblance to his father that anyone who knew “Bisto” could easily identify the son, and “Bisto” was, by no means, unknown in the small town. He was, without doubt, a troubled man and was known to regularly beat his wife, which Fr. Lennon thought was a disgusting act to be perpetrated by any man. It was time, he thought to himself, to take some action and try to get “Bisto” to desist from acts of violence against his wife and family. Bracing himself to face down an angry “Bisto” Mackey, Father Lennon moved down the row of houses until he came to the Mackey’s bright blue, front door. It was already slightly opened, probably caused by young Sean’s hasty escape, and he could hear raised voices coming from within, swearing and damning each other. Without knocking on the front door, or even announcing himself, the priest walked on into the house, to the living room. Here he saw Mary sitting on an old, battered armchair in a very bedraggled condition, tears in her eyes and her mouth was bleeding slightly. As he came closer to the woman, Fr. Lennon noticed that one of her eyes was very badly swollen and several bruises were beginning to rise on her face. “Bisto”, was standing over his wife, shaking his clenched fist at her, and he was shouting all sorts of obscenities at the poor woman.
“Ah, just shut your big gob, Bisto!” and angry Father Lennon demanded. “If you put that fist of yours near her again I will personally lay you out flat on your back!” the priest warned.
“Bisto” immediately stopped his threatening manner and stared sullenly at the priest. “This is none of your business,” Bisto told Father Lennon angrily. “Do you think that dog-collar you wear will save you from a thumping?”
“I don’t need a dog-collar to protect me,” replied the priest confidently and drew himself up to his full height, showing his muscularity to its best. Bisto took a second glance at the clergyman and began to regret his antagonism toward him.
“Now, just you sit yourself down there, Bisto,” Father Lennon said calmly, pointing toward an empty armchair. “Let us try and get this nonsense sorted out.” As “Bisto” moved toward the chair Father Lennon scanned the room and noticed several young girls huddled in a corner and seeking protection beneath a heavy table.
“You,” he called out to one of the girls who appeared to be the eldest. “Will you please get me a clean cloth and some clean water, so we can get your mother cleaned up.” The young girl said nothing in reply, but she crawled from under the table and nervously moved into the kitchen.
“This is all that bitch’s fault, Father,” Bisto said. “No matter what I say or do she just continually nags me. She drives me mad, the ungrateful trollop!”
“Bitch, Trollop, these are not words a man uses to describe his wife, the mother of his children, and a woman as good as Mary,” Fr. Lennon told him. With this said he spoke no more but lifted the bowl of clean water from the young girl. Using the clean cloth that had been brought he began to gently dab at the cuts and bruises with the cool, clear water. “Tell me, Bisto,” he said after a few minutes, “what kind of a thrill does it give you to beat a defenceless woman? The mother of your children.”
“It is not enjoyment, Father,” Bisto told him angrily. “She drives me to it. Mary’s always nagging me about having a few drinks, and about spending time with my friends”.
“Because you are never out of the pub,” snapped Mary with a fire in her eyes and wincing under the attention Fr. Lennon was giving her eye and nose. “You spend every penny you have on your friends and drink. We have no food on our table and our children run around in rags. I don’t see too many of your so-called friends giving us anything. Yet you still buy them drinks.”
Bisto jumped to his feet once again and moved toward Mary. “Do you see what I mean Father?” he asked.
Mary visibly trembled with fear as Bisto came closer. “I don’t have to open my mouth for him to give me a dig in it. He comes home drunk and lashes out at me for no reason. If there’s no food on the table he beats me,” Mary declared.
Bisto shook his fist threateningly at Mary and told her, “Just keep your mouth shut and do what I tell you!”
“Will the two of you be quiet?” demanded an exasperated Fr. Lennon as he continued to clean up the cuts on Mary’s face. “The two of you are concerned about little victories over each other and don’t seem to care about what your fighting is doing to those poor children,” he pointed out to them. “I think it is time that I talked some sense into you both.”
The Priest finished cleaning up Mary’s cuts and bruises. Handing the bowl back to the oldest girl in the family he turned to face Bisto, who appeared to be still quite inebriated. He looked up at the husband, who was now standing above him and asked, “Where did you get the drink so early on a Sunday morning?”
“’Wee Minnie’s’ Pub, Father,” Bisto replied. “All you do is rap the back door and you can get whatever you want, Father.” He was smiling very slyly at the priest and winking his eye conspiratorially. “It’s all done on the quiet, Father. You know what I mean?”
Angrily Father Lennon snapped at him, him “No! I don’t know what you mean, because it is illegal!”
“Ah, but sure everyone does it,” Bisto laughed.
“That doesn’t make it right,” replied the priest. “But I would know how you paid for it.”
Bisto shied away a little and muttered, “I had a few pounds.”
“I understand that, but where did those few pounds come from?”
“Tell him,” interrupted Mary. “Tell him what you did!”
“Be quiet, woman,” snarled Bisto.
Father Lennon looked sternly at the man and urged him, “Come on Bisto, man up and tell the truth.”
“With the last of the Family Allowance,” he confessed.
“The last bit of money we had,” cried Mary.
“Do you want another slap woman?” Bisto asked angrily and lifted his hand to Mary threateningly.
The priest now stood up, towering above Bisto, and asked, “Would you like me to give you one?” He then moved closer to the drunken man and told him, “I will lay you out flat if you ever touch her in my presence, you gobshite!” He sat down on a chair for he was not about to take any chances with this bulk of a man, man of God or not.
“Father,” Mary interjected. “There is no food for the children and he has left me with no money to buy any. What am I to do? I can’t let them starve.” She was crying, and her tears ran down her cheeks. Mary’s eyes, red and swollen from the battering she had received at Bisto’s hands were beginning to darken as bruises formed. The right eye, particularly, was almost a purple-black colour already.
She nodded her head in agreement saying, “Yes, Father.”
“You’re far too kind Father,” said Mary, lifting the corner of her cardigan to wipe the tears in her eyes. Fr. Lennon replaced the wallet into his pocket before turning to both Mary and Bisto, telling them, “Listen, both of you. Someone has to look after this precious family for you two are not doing it.” He had succeeded in calming down both parties to the dispute and now began the task of negotiating a settlement and some sort of reconciliation. He looked kindly at the children and said to them, “Why don’t you go outside and play in the Lane for a while? Don’t come back in until I call you. Ok?”
“Yes Father,” they replied, almost in unison.
Over the following two hours the priest tried everything he knew to get the warring parties to agree to a cessation of their hostilities and set up a peace plan of sorts. By the end of the first hour Bisto had regained at least some sobriety and he began to weep as he answered the priest’s questions. He was encouraged, thereafter, to talk about his feelings and particularly his feelings for his wife. Bisto talked about the difficulty in finding work, his depressed condition at the lack of money the concern he had for his children living in a totally unsuitable house. He also professed his deep sorrow at having hit his wife and he vowed that he would never raise his hand to her again. At the same time Fr. Lennon succeeded in persuading Mary to accept her faults in the relationship. She was still weeping, and she got down on her knees, swearing she would never say another nagging word to Bisto. He now got down on his knees in front of his wife and they embraced each other comfortingly.
“I swear no more squandering money on drink, Mary!” Bisto told his wife tearfully.
“We will work our way through all these difficulties,” Mary told him, still sobbing. “There is absolutely no problem that we cannot overcome if we work together.”
Putting his hand on top of his wife’s head, Bisto stroked her hair softly. It is something he used to do when they were a courting couple and Mary enjoyed these special moments. “We will overcome these difficulties, Mary. You take the next family allowance payment and get yourself a new pair of shoes, or a skirt, or something.”
It was a special moment and Mary was happy to hear Bisto being so concerned for her welfare. But, Mary believed there were more important things that they needed to do. “We should see to the Kids first,” she urged
They were now hugging each other and kissing as Fr. Lennon turned and moved toward the front door. His job was done, and he decided he could now leave them to their own devices. It was time for him to now hurry home to the presbytery, hoping that he would not be too late for lunch. Father Lennon had been obliged by circumstance to forego his usual Sunday walk and yet, in his opinion, the time had been well spent and he was satisfied.
Lizzie Kelly was a lady in her early sixties, a widow, and the housekeeper for the priests in the parochial house. Father Lennon always enjoyed his Sunday morning stroll and he always looked forward to the Sunday Dinner that Lizzie prepared. There was always a Steak Roast, done to perfection in the oven and accompanied with peas, carrots, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes and a thick, brown, onion gravy that sat in a porcelain gravy-boat in the centre of the table. Father Lennon could smell the beautiful aromas of the Sunday meal wafting from Lizzie’s kitchen. She, however, met him at the door of her kitchen and told him rather sternly, “There is someone here who has been waiting almost an hour for you, Father.”
“Who would that be?” he asked.
Lizzie was back at her usual station, fussing around all the pots and pans that were smoking and hissing on top of the stove. But she stopped for a moment and told him, “It’s that woman from the Primary School, Father. She is sitting in the parlour.”
“Ms. Ryan the headmistress?” he asked.
“That’s right,” replied Lizzie without even looking at him. “It’s Philomena Ryan, with all her airs and graces,” she sneered, putting her nose in the air at the very mention of Philomena Ryan’s name.
Father Lennon was puzzled as to why Philomena Ryan would ask for him. “I wonder what she would want me for?” he said aloud.
Lizzie’s didn’t know and could care less about what Philomena Ryan wanted: the food was almost ready to be served and she had no time to spend answering such questions. More importantly she did not like Philomena and just wanted her to leave. “Now, that woman would not tell the likes of me what she wanted, Father,” Lizzie told the priest. He immediately realised the error of his ways, for he knew that there was not one person in the entire district who would confide in Lizzie Kelly. She knew it as well as he did.” Better you go and see to it Father, you have only ten minutes until I put the lunch on the table.”
“Better get to it,” he said as he left the kitchen and Lizzie could get on with the meal. He walked across the hallway to the parlour, where the headmistress was waiting for him.
“Hello Ms. Ryan,” Father Lennon greeted the lady, politely. She was sitting on a high back chair that sat at a huge, highly polished, rosewood table near to the window. “I am so sorry for keeping you, but the duties of a priest you know,” Fr. Lennon explained to her with a polite smile. But Philomena Ryan maintained her stern pose as if she was set in granite. She was a typical middle-aged spinster and was totally self-obsessed with her status as an important personage in the town. Usually Ms. Ryan was usually the first to be consulted by certain groups, concerning “run of the mill” problems encountered within this Parish. Only, on this occasion, it was the mighty one who was the person needing guidance on handling some difficulty or other.
“It is of no concern Father. I fully understand” she politely assured Fr. Lennon. “But, the matter I need to speak to you about is an extremely serious problem,” Philomena told him in a quiet voice that was deliberately hard to hear since she did not want to be overheard discussing such things with a priest. “This problem, Father, is so serious that it requires your immediate attention before things get out of hand.”
The priest could hear a definitive tone of concern in her voice and he was eager to discover what had caused her so much consternation, “My dear Ms. Ryan, whatever has caused you so much trouble? Please tell me what has happened?”
“It’s that old pervert, O’Dee, Father,” she told him quietly and took a quick glance around the room to make sure no one else could hear.
“Slinky O’Dee?” Father Lennon asked in a similarly quiet voice. He should have known that it would be about that lecherous old man. Almost every other day the priests or the police received a complaint about this troublemaker and, yet, the priest was slightly amused by this mention of one of the district’s oldest perverts.
Ms. Ryan’s face blushed red as she answered, “Yes Father. I believe that is the name he uses to describe it.” She lowered her eyes to the ground in embarrassment at the fact that she had to discuss such things with a member of the clergy.
“Calls what, Ms. Ryan?” asked Father Lennon, already knowing the answer but wanting to make things a little bit more difficult for this interfering busybody.
Again, her eyes scanned the room in search of prying ears before she answered him, very quietly, “His thing, Father.”
“His what?” asked the priest, pretending lack of understanding.
“His penis,” Philomena hissed out at him, as if spitting the words out of her mouth. She was annoyed at having been obliged to use the word, which she believed no lady should have to utter.
“Ohhh! I see” said Fr. Lennon,” His thing?”
“Yes, Father,” the embarrassed woman told him. “He has been exposing his “Slinky” to the girls on their way home from school after classes.”
“Disgusting beast,” the priest said. “And where does he expose his Slinky?”
“He lies in wait in the trees and bushes around the corner from the bus stop. When the girls least expect it, he jumps out from the trees into the middle of the girls, wiggling it about in front of these children. He is a disgusting little man and should be put away,” she demanded. Then, believing she had misspoke in the presence of the priest, she stopped and apologized, “I beg your pardon for my coarse language and anger.”
“Please Ms. Ryan,” he assured her. “There is no need for embarrassment. Your feelings are quite understandable under the circumstances.” He contemplated for a moment then, speaking directly to her, he said, “Something must be done.”
She smiled slightly at Father Lennon’s assurances and continued, “He has done the same thing with older girls and even women, but he soon found that they were fit for him and his ways.” Ms. Ryan pointed out. “Mrs. Brady grabbed him by the collar one evening and gave him a good hefty kick in his Slinky. He couldn’t walk properly for a week after it.”
Fr. Lennon laughed to himself quietly at the idea of wee Mrs. Brady assaulting Slinky O’Dee. But Father Lennon quickly realised that incident was a serious escalation in “Slinky” O’Dee’s actions and that he had to do something to stop him.
“This might mean we will have to involve the police,” Fr. Lennon suggested and noticed that Ms. Ryan flinched, almost in horror, at the prospect of involving the police.
“Dear God, Father,” she said. “I don’t know about involving the police. It would mean I would be called to give evidence against the man. We must think about the school and about the children. Whatever would people say?”
Father Lennon fully appreciated the woman’s concerns and tried to ease her anxieties. “Just you leave it to me Ms. Ryan. I will sort it out quietly,” Fr. Lennon assured her.
“Thank you, Oh, thank you, Father,” she said with great relief. Now that she had told the Priest she felt much better. Furthermore, she knew that whatever the priest eventually decided to do, it would be the right thing. Much more content, Ms. Ryan shook Fr. Lennon’s hand firmly and left the presbytery.
As he closed the front door on the departing Ms. Ryan he sighed with relief, “Now for my dinner.” It was yet another duty done but not yet fully completed Fr. Lennon said aloud to himself with a sense of relief.
The next day, Monday, at quarter-past two Father Lennon went into the hallway of the parochial house and put on his overcoat. He had decided to go to the bus stop where, it was alleged, Slinky O’Dee was causing some trouble. The children would soon be getting out of school and he wanted to get himself into position before anyone else arrived. When he reached the bus stop he chose to conceal himself in some bushes, which gave him an excellent view of the road. He heard the school bell ring loudly in the afternoon quietness, informing the children that it was time to burst out of the gates and go home. But, as the sound of the school bell ringing came to an end, Father Lennon heard a suspicious rustle among the bushes a few yards from where he was hiding. It was Slinky and he waited until several young girls had gathered at the bus stop before bursting out of the bushes. Out he jumped with his trousers around his ankles and exposed the entire lower half of his body, making lewd gestures and laughing lecherously. Swiftly the priest moved against him, grabbing Slinky by the scruff of his neck and pulling him backwards into the bushes as the girls looked on in amazement. Once he had gotten Slinky into cover of the bushes, Father Lennon lifted his big, heavy boot and planted it firmly into the old pervert’s backside. Slinky howled with the pain as the priest’s boot connected with his cocyx and, just for good measure, Father Lennon gave him two more hefty kicks in his rear end. Slinky screamed loudly with the pain and began to beg Father Lennon for mercy. The priest showed mercy by letting him go and pushing him away but, the force of Fr. Lennon’s push threw Slinky to the ground, where his bare buttocks settled into a patch of stinging nettles and thistles. Father Lennon bent over the crying man and warned him, “Now you listen to me, Slinky O’Dee! You ever do anything like this again I will give you the biggest kicking you have ever gotten in your life. Then, when I am done I will ensure you get jail as a sex pervert. Now get out of here and sin no more.” Still screeching, Slinky squirmed and shuffled to remove his red, bruised and stinging backside out of the nettles. Very little was seen of him again in the town and there were no more incidents reported. The duties of a priest in Ireland are not just to lead people in prayer.
His family had christened him Edward, but we preferred to call him ‘Mitch’ because he was always playing truant from school, which where we live is known as “Mitching.” He was the life in our small group of boys as we played in the fields and streams around our homes. But as ‘Mitch’ grew older he gradually became a pale, thin version of the athletic young man that he had once been. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties ‘Mitch’ had become a sickly-looking man, ashen-faced, and with a feeble constitution. His hair was light auburn in colour and he preferred to keep long, as he had done in his youth. He also had a beard that he chose neither to shave or trim in any style, leaving it to grow wildly across his lower face. Strangely, his hands were a pale colour and looked to be delicate. Indeed, they were soft and not at all hard, or coarse, as you would expect the hands of a labouring man to be. But, as a young boy he had learned the trade of a tailor from his grandfather, in which trade he excelled. ‘Mitch’ now earned a very good living from his trade and had built up a good reputation for himself throughout the area for the quality of his workmanship. We remained close to him as we grew up and were full of admiration for his tailoring talent. There were, however, some who thought him to be something of a miser, hoarding his money rather than spending it freely like other men who spent their time in the ‘Bookie Shops’ and public bars of the town. But, ‘Mitch’ was a sensible, sober and rational man, who had more to interest him than the greyhounds, the horses, or the ‘Gargle‘ (drink). Nevertheless, much to the amusement of many, he insisted that he could see and hear the fairies that lived around his workshop, the town and the district. Whenever he met and confronted anyone who voiced any doubt about his spiritual talent his eyes would fill with a frightening wild, hollow look. At the same time, his normally friendly facial expression would become suddenly dark and his brow furrowed deeply.
Whenever his name was mentioned some would simply say, “Poor Mitch Curran, sure his head’s away with the fairies.” But, in my opinion, there was no man in the town who looked less like he had mental problems than ‘Mitch’ Curran. If ever a man enjoyed the ‘craic’, loved to hear a joke or could tell a humorous story it was ‘Mitch’. He could never have been described as an unhappy man in any manner or form, and it just appeared to be a natural talent that allowed him to hear and speak to the fairy folk, and sure he was not doing anybody any harm. Strangely, ‘Mitch’ was a man who did not seem to feel pain like the rest of us, or even experience the slightest tinge of fear, and I often wondered was this because of the close relationship he had developed with the ‘Good People.’ In fact, I was certain that this was a result of the fact that ‘Mitch’s’ relationship with the fairy folk appeared to be both intimate and friendly, and he would converse with them for hours. Any person who saw these conversations take place would tell you that they were terribly one-sided affairs. But, they would also admit that the discussions did appear to give ‘Mitch’ a great amount of pleasure, causing him to laugh loudly and joke the entire time that he talked with the ‘Good People.’
There were many occasions, when I was at a loose end, that I would call into ‘Mitch’s’ workshop just to see how he was keeping. “Well, Mitch, have you seen your fairy friends today?” I would ask him.
“Aaah, Jimmy, would you whisht (be quiet). Can’t you see them yourself? There must be two dozen or more running around this place and keeping me back from my work,” he often replied.
No matter how hard I looked I could not see them. They were totally invisible to me despite ‘Mitch’ constantly insisting, “There’s the oul’ fella, sitting on top of the machine for he loves to feel the vibrations through his body when I am sewing. But, they are all having a bit of a tough time at the minute. There’s nothing to worry about, however, for they are all great wee schemers, the lot of them. They’ll soon find a way to be right again. Look, there’s one them now and he’s unravelling my silk threads!” he told me as he waved his hand at a bunch of thread bobbins, just as he would to wave away a fly.
“Get away out of that you wee devil, or I will leave a mark upon you that will never go away. Get out of that, you wee thief!“
Now, throughout my life I had heard many different tales about the ‘Good People’ that would encourage a man to be extra-careful in any dealings he might have with them. On one occasion I asked him, “Mitch, are you not afraid of the fairies at all?“
“What? Am I afraid, you’re asking me?” he answered with a loud laugh. “Sure, why would I need to fear them, for they have no power over me! None at all!“
“Of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that made me feel that I should have known this all along. “Didn’t my da tell the priest who christened me to include the special prayer against the fairies. You know, a priest cannot refuse the prayer to anyone when it is asked of him. So, I got the special prayer and, thanks be to God, that priest did what was right.“
I was puzzled for a moment and watched him as he was then apparently distracted by fairy activity elsewhere in the shop, and shouted at the them, “Will you leave all that stuff alone, you imp. You are the thief of all thieves!“
Having said this, ‘Mitch’ then returned his attention to me saying, “It was a good thing indeed, for those fairies wanted to make me their king!“
To be honest with you. I almost fell off the stool with the shock of what he had just revealed to me but, somehow, I managed to maintain my composure and asked him calmly, “Is that really possible?“
“Isn’t it me who is tellingyou it is? Now, if you don’t believe me then you can ask them yourself and they will tell you the truth of it!“
I decided that best thing that I could do at that time was to look all around me, even though I knew I would see nothing. But, I had seen ‘Mitch’s’ temper flare with the others who had doubted him and who had tried to take ‘a hand of him’ (make fun). Not surprisingly I decided to accept what he had told me and continued to ask him questions about his little, invisible friends, I chose to continue my enquiries with him. “What size are they, Mitch?“
“Och, sure they’re only wee boys, wearing green coats and the prettiest of little brogue shoes that a man ever set eyes on. There’s two old friends of mine, there,” he pointed toward a shelf of cloth lying in rolls. “They’re running on top of that cloth there. The one with the grey beard is the oldest of them and goes by the name, ‘Munchy’. The other one, with the small green bowler hat is called ‘Cheeks’ and he can play the Uileann pipes (Irish Bagpipes) like an angel.” ‘Mitch’ looked over to the rolls of cloth again and he called, “Cheeks, give us a wee tune on those pipes of yours, you blackguard. Play the ‘Stalk of Barley’.” Then he turned to me and hissed,” Now, Jim, whisht and listen!” While he continued his sewing, ‘Mitch’ beat time to the music with his feet on the wooden floor and seemed to be enjoying every note as if it was real, but I heard nothing.
This was not the only time that I visited Mitch in his workshop and I was not the only person to spend some time with him there. But, every time I had gone to his workshop I tried to hear the faintest sound of fairy voice, but I heard and saw nothing. Even as I sat there listening, ‘Mitch’s’ tongue never once ceased moving in his head. His wife once told me that there were many nights, after ‘Mitch’ went to bed, when he would awaken from his sleep and appear to brush the bedclothes as he made efforts to clear away the fairies from his bed. “Get out of here!” he would shout at them. “You shouldn’t be in here and, ‘Christ’ what time is this for you to begin playing those damned pipes? Get out and let me sleep, for I am completely knackered.” But, if they did not go away immediately he would shout at them again. The only noise that ‘Mitch’s’ wife could hear, however, came from her husband.
“Now, if you go away and leave me in peace to sleep, then I will give you a wee surprise tomorrow,” he would try to sweeten them. “I will get the wife to make a big rice pudding and we will share it between us. You know you love rice pudding and, if you do what I ask, you will be licking the bottom of your bowl.“
Turning to his wife, who was now wide awake, he would sleepily tell her, “They are not bad wee men, darling. Look at them all leaving quietly except for ‘Old Red’ over there. You know, it’s the aches of his old age that makes him want to sleep in the same bed as myself.” His wife, of course, could see nothing and would angrily pout as her husband put his head down on the pillow again, pulled the bedclothes closer around him, and returned to a peaceful sleep. Mrs. Curran could not, unfortunately, do the same. When she was awakened it could take her an hour or more to get back to sleep again and, even then, there would only be an hour or two until she had to rise and prepare breakfast.
Just adjacent to the town’s boundary stood the house of Frankie McCann, where I had spent many happy nights with very close friends, playing cards. It was a comfortable, warm cottage in which the fire was never allowed to die in the hearth and the kettle was always on the boil. The far gable-end of the house from the entrance gate was partly built into a grass covered mound that was said by some to be a home to the fairy folk. For many of the townspeople, however, McCann’s house was not only a place for fairies, but it was said by them to be haunted by the spirits of unbaptised children that were buried on the southern side of the mound. The gossips said that none but the brave, the McCann family and unbelievers like me, dared to enter the property. It must be said, however, that in every way possible such rumours were nearly as good as a burglar alarm for keeping undesirables away.
Frankie’s child had been sickly baby since birth and even the doctor was not sure about exactly what was making her so sick. It was almost mid-summer, when fairies are at their most lively, that the child once again took a fever and began to cough harshly. One evening, around dark, we had gathered for a hand of cards in the house and we heard the strange sound of wood being sawed coming from the grassy mound. Puzzled by the noise we put our cards down on the table and decided that we would search for the source of the noise. On the mound, however, there were only white-thorn trees growing on the mound, and no local man in his right mind would even consider risking his life by sawing down one of those fairy trees. More puzzling to us was the fact that it was very late in the evening for any person to be sawing anything, which was also cause for concern.
There were seven or eight of us and we worked together to scour the entire property to find the source of the noise, but we found nothing. Other than ourselves we could find no other person, spirit or creature thereabouts. So, with nothing to be seen around the mound we returned to the house and sat down to resume our card game. But, we had no sooner sat down upon the chairs when the noise was heard once more, and this time it was much nearer to the house. We rushed from our seats into the darkness outside in the hope of catching the rascal off guard. Once again, however, we saw nothing untoward.
Several of us were standing together upon the grassy mound when we heard the sawing noise coming from a small hollow about one hundred yards from where we stood. Although the hollow was completely open to our view and we could hear the noise clearly, we could see no sign of a perpetrator. We moved closer to the hollow in the hope that we would finally discover who, or what, was making this strange noise. But, when we arrived at the hollow we could still hear the sawing noise, only now, added to this, there was the noise of nails being hammered into timber. It was now time, we decided, to send for ‘Mitch’ Curran’s assistance and we sent Tommy Bell to fetch him. Tommy’s task didn’t take him very long to complete and ‘Mitch’ was soon at our sides. As we expected, almost without hesitation, ‘Mitch’ announced the solution to our puzzle. He informed us, “It’s the fairies making the noise. I see them all and they are very busy.”
“But, what are they doing?” I asked him.
“They are building a coffin for a child,” he said almost in a whisper. “The body of the coffin is built and now they are finishing the lid.”
The breath rushed out of my body with the shock of what I had heard. My mind began to struggle to decide if what Mitch had said was true or not. Later, that very same evening the sickly child passed away and was grieved by the child’s loving parents. The next evening Frankie’s brother arrived at the house and, bringing a worktable outside, he began to construct a coffin for his niece. Those who heard the uncle working on this task at the back of the house agreed that the sawing and hammering sounds were exactly the same as those noises that were heard the previous night.
It is often said that a sad tale is best told in winter, and one winter’s evening as I sat by the hearth of a blazing turf fire, I heard the following ghostly tale. But there was certain credibility about this story because of the way it was told to us with an air of reverence from the creaking voice of a withered old woman. Earlier there had been some talk about the need for Masses to be said for the souls of the dead and the importance that this held within the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland. In fact, the tale was told as a means of proving how sacred a duty it was for a Mass for the soul of the faithful departed to be said as they stood before the judgment seat in Heaven.
Saint John’s Eve starts at sunset on 23rd June and is the eve of celebration before the feast day of Saint John the Baptist. It was on a recent Saint John’s Eve that the old woman said the following supernatural event occurred –
“Wasn’t it Mary Molloy, a great friend of my mother’s, God rest her soul, that told me the entire story? She happened to be in the chapel at the evening service for ‘Eve of Saint John’ at the time. Now, whether she was tired and feeling drowsy after a hard day’s work gathering and tying up the new-cut grass, or whether it was something caused by the glory of the good Lord for the happy repose of a troubled soul, I don’t know. But somehow Mary fell asleep in the chapel, and she slept so soundly that she never opened an eye until every man, woman, and child had left the chapel, and the doors were locked. Well, when she awoke, poor Mary Molloy was frightened and trembled from head to foot as if she would die right there on the spot. Mind you, it’s no wonder she was so frightened when you consider that she was locked in a chapel all alone, and in the dark, and no one to help her.
“Well, being a hardy sort of woman, she recovered after a little while and concluded that there was no use in her making a whole fuss, trying to make herself heard, for she knew well enough that there was no living soul was within hearing. After a little consideration, now that she had gotten over the first fright at being left alone, some better thoughts came into her head and comforted her. Sure, she knew she was in God’s own house, and that there was no bad spirit that would ever dare come there. Comforted, Mary knelt again, and repeated her ‘Lord’s Prayer’, ‘Creed’ and ‘Hail Marys’, over and over, until she felt quite safe in Heaven’s protection. Wrapping herself up in her cloak, Mary thought that she would lie down and try to sleep until the morning. But she now called out loudly “May the good Lord keep us!” Then, the old woman, devoutly crossed herself when a sudden, very bright light shone into the chapel as bright as the sun, and with that poor Mary, looking up, saw the light shining out of the door to the Sacristy. At that very same moment, from out of the Sacristy walked a priest, dressed in black vestments, and making his way slowly up to the altar. He turned and asked, “Is there anyone here to answer this mass?”
“Well, when she heard the apparition speaking these words Mary’s heart began to race and she thought it ready to explode inside her breast, for she certain that the priest was some form of a ghostly spirit. When the priestly figure asked three times if there was no one there to answer the mass, and received no reply, he walked slowly back to the sacristy, the door closed, and all became dark again. But before he went into the sacristy, Mary was sure that he looked towards her, and she said that she would never forget the melancholy light that was in his eyes. He gave her such a pitiful look as he passed, and she said that she had never heard before or since such a wonderfully deep voice.
“Well, the minute that the spirit was gone, the poor woman dropped in a dead faint, and she could recall nothing more about the entire event until she regained consciousness in her mother’s cabin, and her senses returned. When the sacristan had opened the chapel the next morning for mass, he found Mary unconscious and calling for help brought her home to her mother’s cabin. But she had been so badly frightened by the event that it took a week before she could leave her bed. When Mary told all that she had seen and heard to her priest, his reverence then came to understand the meaning of the whole experience. On hearing about the priest appearing in black vestments he realized that it was to say a mass for the dead that he comes to the chapel. He concluded that the ‘Spirit Priest’ had, during his lifetime, forgotten to say a mass for the dead that he was bound to say, and that his poor soul wouldn’t have any rest until that mass was said. In the meantime, however, the ghostly priest must walk the earth until his duty was done.
“The Parish priest told Mary that, because all of this was made known through her, she had been chosen by the priestly spirit. He asked her if she would return once again to the chapel and keep another vigil there for the happy repose of a soul. Mary had always been a brave woman, kindly, and always ready to do what she thought was her duty in the eyes of God. She immediately replied that she would watch another night, but she hoped that she wouldn’t be asked to stay in the chapel by herself for any length of time. The Parish priest told her that it would do if she stayed there until shortly after twelve o’clock at night, knowing that spirits do not appear until after twelve, and from then until cockcrow. As requested, Mary went on her vigil, and before twelve she knelt to pray in the chapel. She began to count her beads on the rosary, and the poor woman felt that every minute was like an hour until she would be able to leave. Thankfully, Mary wasn’t kept very long before the dazzling light burst from out of the sacristy door, and the same ghostly priest came out that had appeared to her before. He walked slowly to the altar and once there he asked, in the same melancholy voice, ‘Is there anyone here to answer this mass?’
“Poor Mary tried to answer, but she felt as if her heart was up in her mouth, and she could not utter a single word. Once again, the question came from the altar, and she still couldn’t say a word in answer. But the sweat ran down her forehead as thick as drops of rain, and she suddenly felt less anxious. There was no longer any pressure on her heart, and so, when for the apparition asked for the third and last time, ‘Is there no one here to answer this mass?’ poor Mary muttered ’Yes’ as clearly as she could.
“She told me on many occasions afterward that it was a truly beautiful sight to see the lovely smile upon the spirit priest’s face as he turned around and looked kindly upon her. In a gentle voice he told her, ‘It’s twenty years that I have been ‘asking that question, and no one answered until this blessed night. A blessing be on her that answered, and now my business here on earth is finished,’ and with those words, he vanished in an instant. So, I tell you, never say that it’s no good praying for the dead, for you have heard that even the soul of a priest couldn’t have peace after forgetting to perform such a holy a thing as a mass for the soul of the faithful departed.”
A Tale written after an old story idea by Wesley G Lyttle (1844-96)
There was a large turf fire blazing upon the broad, pleasant hearth of Matty Carr’s cottage, filling the entire house with its sweet, fragrant scents. In those days, the turf was plentiful on the “Selkie Moss” and it was likely that the supply would last for a few hundred years yet. Bella, as Matt’s wife was called, was very much a house-proud woman, who was convinced that nothing makes a home more cheerful than a bright, warm, and welcoming fire in the hearth. Although she was usually a thrifty and frugal type of woman, Bella would build up the bricks of peat into a glowing pile with unsparing hands until the kitchen felt as hot as a kiln. The floor was so clean that you could have almost eaten your meal off it, and every pot and pan was washed and cleaned to such an extent that they looked like mirrors hanging from their hooks. The wooden dresser that stood against the wall was looking fresh in its white gloss finish, and everything in the house had the definite appearance of absolute cleanliness.
In the corner of the kitchen, near to the fireplace, there was a clumsy-looking, home-made cradle, in which slept the newest and most precious addition to the Carr family. Every now and again, Bella would stop in the middle of her household chores to take a look in at the sleeping child, and she would whisper sweet blessings over her new-born infant.
“Hey, Bella!” Matt shouted. “Was there anybody touching my razor?” He was calling to his wife from the next-door room, where he was getting himself dressed for the important ceremony that was soon to begin.
“For Jaysus sake, man dear,” she called back to him in a loud whisper, “could you not speak just a bit softer, ye eejit, or you’ll waken the child!” At the same time, one her tiptoes, she hurried to the door of the adjoining room.
Matt was in a bit of a temper with himself about something, or other, which was not uncommon, and Bella could see his mood quite clearly. He was standing in the room and facing Bella when she came to the door of the room, and he held the cut-throat razor in one of his hands. His face was plentifully lathered with shaving soap, but from one side of his chin she saw that there was a cut from which blood flowed quite freely. Matt held the razor out toward her, ensuring that she had a clear view of the condition in which he had found the edge of the blade.
“Aah, wee man! Have you cut your wee self?” she asked him with a false tone of pity, although she was concerned that he would be alright.
“Cut myself?” he replied impatiently, being none too pleased with his wife’s tone. “Well, I think I have, or maybe I’m sweating blood! With all your blatherin’ maybe I will even bleed to death just for you. Now, just get me a plaster, will you?“
Returning to the kitchen, Bella fumbled in the dresser drawers and found a box of plasters, from which she took one and gave it to her angry husband. She knew that Matt was a good man, but he was also the type of man that occasionally lacked patience, and he did not suffer fools lightly. He had absolutely no doubts that some of the children had been using his razor to sharpen their pencils or other items. Matt’s mistake was simply that he had failed to check the edge of the razor before he began to shave with it. “Would you get the leather strap for me, Bella?” he asked her.
“You know, maybe the strap will not be good enough to put an edge on the blade. I might have to take the bloody thing to the anvil and use a sledgehammer to put a proper edge on it. Then, if that works, I could polish it up by rubbing it along the big sharpening stone that I use for the scythe,” he told Bella in a half-joking tone of voice.
While Matt was talking to her, Bella returned to the dresser and fetched a huge glass jar, filled with a golden coloured liquid. Matt had a bright twinkle in his eyes when he caught sight of that jar in his wife’s hands. The corners of his mouth began twitching with anticipation as he came to understand her intentions. Nevertheless, he kept complaining and moaning until, finally, gave him a large tumbler filled with whisky that had been drawn from the jar.
“And what’s that?” asked Matt, who was still not in the best of humour.
“Aah, sure take a wee drink, darlin’. It’ll calm you down and steady your hand. It might even help stop your bleeding,” said Bella with a comforting smile.
Matt, being the sort of man that he was, did not need a second invitation to have a drink of whisky. He put the razor down by the washing bowl on the dressing table and gently took the tumbler of whisky from his wife’s hand. “Here’s to you, Bella,” he laughed as he emptied the glass in one drink.
“Jaysus, Matt, you’ll have to take your time with the rest,” Bella insisted.
“By God, Bella, sure you never spoke a truer word,” Matt replied. “There was a time that I could’ve drunk a river of that stuff, dry.“
“Indeed, you could have, wee man,” smiled Bella. “These days I would rather see you bringing in a bag of “Inglis'” flour than a jar of whisky. We can have more fun making things with the flour.“
Don’t be daft, woman!” sneered Matt. “There’s more fun in that jar of whisky than there could ever be in “Inglis'” flour, even a cart load of it!“
“That may well be the case, my dear,” Bella replied to him. “But, like everything else, darlin’, whisky is very good as long as you keep it in its right place, and you do not abuse it.“
“Aye, and aren’t I just the man who knows where that right place is, and able to put it into it?” Matt laughed heartily, but Bella was not amused. He held the tumbler toward Bella again, saying, “Bella, just give me another wee measure and then I’ll quit.“
But the jar was closed, and Bella had placed it back on the dresser, totally unwilling to replenish her husband’s glass. “You have had enough for the time being,” she told him and began to walk away.
“Och, Bella, just one more wee glass,” he pleaded with his wife. “Just to keep the first one company. You know, a bird cannot fly with only one wing.“
Bella, of course, gave way to Matts pleas, as every dutiful wife would do. Matt now quickly forgot the bleeding cut on his face and, with a few strokes on the leather honing strap, the razor soon became as sharp as it had been previously. His face was soon shaven cleanly, and he dressed in his best ‘Sunday Suit’. In less than half-an-hour he was standing at the front door of his cottage, waiting to welcome his invited guests. Matt had a quick eye and was able to distinguish objects at a distance from him. With that keen eyesight he scanned the various roads that led away from the house, and as soon as he saw certain people coming into his view he would call out to his wife, “They’re coming Bella! Here they are! Are those glasses ready? And the boiling water and the whisky? Is there something a little softer for the lasses, such as lemonade or cider? By Jaysus, woman, but this will be a well-remembered day and night! Sure, this well may be the last christening we’ll ever have, so to hell with the expense!“
It was absolutely amazing the number of people that Matt Carr was able to squeeze into that small house of his. There was both young and old, but it was mostly adults who were in attendance. They were put into the kitchen and the bedroom, and in every vacant space that was available inside the house. The first of the guests had begun arriving in the afternoon, but they were mainly the older women who came to give Bella a hand in making the needful preparations and attend to the wants and needs of the children.
Matt was now in his glory. If you could have heard him talking to the guests you would have heard him talking to the guests, you would have thought him to be the ‘Lord of the Manor’, instead of the hardworking, hard-fisted mechanic of Ballyfoss. But Matts heart was bursting with happiness and he would not have changed places with the proudest man in Ireland.
In a comfortable chair close to the blazing fire sat Biddy Brown, who acted both as a nurse and a midwife for almost the entire district. On her head she wore a white hat, and she was dressed in a spotlessly clean, blue, and white checked uniform. As she sat there near the turf fire there was a look of quiet contentment and grave responsibility on her face, which is so common among the nursing profession. On her knee slept the Carr baby, dressed in a snow-white gown, which was neatly embroidered and adorned for its imminent baptismal ceremony.
Matt, of course, attended to the duty that he saw as being his main responsibility. He was distributing the whisky around his guests. Each had a glass tumbler in their hand or near at hand, which Matt filled from a small jug that he replenished from the large glass jar mentioned earlier. As he moved around, serving each guest, he talked to them in a warm and friendly fashion. “Now, Mrs. McCall,” he said to one guest, “Not one drop have you taken from your glass since I put that first drop in your glass.“
“Ah, sure, dear God, Matt,” she answered him, “this is two or three times you have filled my glass. And, honest to God, my boy, I couldn’t take any more.”
“Jaysus sake, Matty,” said another lady. “Please don’t offer me anymore, for that must be one of the jugs that never empties and my head’s spinning circles already!“
Thus, it continued. Some protested and yet, as they did so, they still held out their glasses for a fresh supply. Others, however, really meant what they had said and refused to take any more of Matt’s whisky.
“Aah, Biddy, we almost forgot you,” said Matt as he approached the nurse and replenished her glass. “What do you think of the new baby, Biddy?“
“No nicer baby has ever come into this world!” Biddy told him as she softly kissed the baby’s head. “And may it be a blessing to its mother and father, as well as a credit to the old country.“
“Amen to that,” came the response from most of those around them.
“Well, Biddy, there could be no better judge than yourself,” exclaimed Bella and Matt. “Because you have put a good number of them through your hands this last fifty years, and now I’ll tell you one and all what I’m going to make of that child you see there –” Matt ended his speech abruptly at this point as the latch on the door lifted and into the house walked the priest, who was to christen the child.
As the priest entered the house everyone rose in respectful silence as the priest came into the cottage. Father Toner was a man with a fine physique and a commanding presence. He had gained a wide reputation for his blood and thunder homilies, in which the assembled congregation could almost smell the sulphur of hell. But, outside of the pulpit, he was much admired for his genial manner and his great kindness toward others. “A good evening to you all,” he said as he stepped forward to shake Bella’s hand, and then he had a warm handshake with a kindly word for everyone else in the house.
At least a half-an-hour was filled with conversation among all those who had gathered in the house and, by the end of those preliminaries, it was time to prepare for the christening. But, by this time also, Matt was in a condition that was far from suitable for the occasion. His frequent journeys to the big glass jar were now beginning to tell on both his speech and his equilibrium. There was a definite glitter in his eye and an unsteadiness in his gait that he tried to hide from others, because it was not appropriate to the occasion and those duties that he would be called upon to discharge.
Father Toner began the ritual with a heartfelt prayer and then he asked that the child be brought forward to him. There were a lot of nudges among those in the crowd, and quite a few of them had great difficulty in restraining their laughter as they watched the tremendous efforts made by Matt to appear both sober and solemn. Matt’s condition, however, did not escape the keen, observant eyes of Father Toner, and there was the faintest sign of twitching at the corners of his mouth as he lifted the child up, placing it into Matt’s arms and asked, “Are you able to hold up the child, Matthew?“
“Am I what?” asked Matt in inebriated surprise, “Able to hand it up! Indeed, I am Father, aye, even if it was the weight of a two-year-old bullock!“
This remark was more than the assembled crowd could stand. At first there was a titter of laughter, but this quickly burst out into unrestrained hilarity. Even Father Toner could not hold back a smile as he demonstrated the difficulty, he had in maintaining the solemnity befitting the occasion. But, nevertheless, things were going very well until the priest poured some drops of cold water upon the sleeping baby’s head. The effect was quick and immediate. The child awoke instantly and gave an ear-piercing wail. In response, Matt turned angrily toward old Biddy, the nurse, and upset the gravity of the occasion once again by hissing at her, “For Christ’s sake Biddy, why didn’t you take the dead cold off the water?“
Finally, it was all over, and Father Toner handed the child back to its parents with a final solemn prayer. He apologised to them both that he could not stay for the celebrations that had been arranged and made ready to leave. As he bid them all farewell, the priest began walking toward Betty Gray’s house, nearby.
“God go with you, father!” cried Matt as soon as the priest was beyond earshot. “Aye, God go with you, for I never feel right in myself when there is a clergyman around the house. Come on, Bella, get those tray things together and let us all have something to eat!“
Bella, of course, did as she was asked, drawing a large table into the centre of the kitchen, and quickly loaded it up with home-baked bread of various kinds. There were oatcakes, potato-cakes, pancakes, soda-farls, wheaten bread, and may other products. Cheese, butter, eggs, and jams were in plentiful supply, and those who could grab themselves a chair were soon at work on this feast. As it was impossible to accommodate all their company at the table, so many of them were obliged to hold their teacups and side plates in their hands, or on their laps.
There was much discussion among the gathered crowd and many subjects were touched upon by them, from the condition in which the country found itself, to the possibility of a neighbour girl being married soon. “Did you hear about Jenny Early being three months gone?” asked Bella.
“Get away with ye!” exclaimed several of the female guests. “Tell us what you know.“
“Well, you know Jenny’s not just the full shilling,” said Bella and several of the ladies nodded their heads in agreement. “Someone has made friends with her, but she wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. But this man asked her to come and see his lambs and then took advantage of her in the hay shed. He told her that it was the sort of things that friends do and she, knowing nothing better, allowed him to have his way.”
“The dirty old ba….”
“Wheesht!” said Bella. “Hold your tongues for here comes Betty Gray and she has a mouth as big as Belfast Lough!”